Sometimes Focus Groups Just Aren’t Fun Any More

We often hear complaints from marketers, agency folks, and others, that they don’t believe in qualitative research. The results are boring, they say, or don’t make sense, or that customers don’t know what they’re talking about. Whatever happened to “the customer is always right”?

Often the reason things don’t turn out so well is that the tool is being misapplied. Researchers want to make the client happy. So it’s hard to tell them that just because they have a hammer (the ability to cut a cheque) doesn’t mean everything in the world is a nail. Customers invest their time coming out to qualitative sessions. They usually receive an honorarium, but that compensation can’t possibly reward them enough to sit through a session that’s boring, tedious, or overloaded with questions. It also means that the moderator can’t deliver a real “deep dive” – instead he or she will barely be able to scratch the surface on a number of issues. But more often, what that “everything but the kitchen sink” approach does, is make it a miserable ordeal for the customer.

Remember that when your customers walk in the focus group room, even if the identity of your company has been “blinded”, they’ll form an impression as to who the sponsor of the research is. If that’s a negative impression, they’ll go away thinking that you don’t respect them, or their time, or their opinions. So what can you do to make it a positive experience?

First, don’t be afraid to share with them, what it is you really want to accomplish with the project. If you’re trying to solve a problem, or have messages you think will touch them, but you aren’t sure, tell them. Let them know you need their help. Find ways to make their time with you serious but fun at the same time. There’s no reason why spending time working on a project for your product shouldn’t be enjoyable for the customer. In fact, it’s imperative.

Respect their opinions and realize that what they have to tell, show, or explore with you has value. That means not rushing them, not laughing out loud when you don’t agree with them, and if something they say doesn’t make sense, making a real effort to find out why. Even if that means saying, “Gee, I would have expected that you would have thought the opposite. Can you explain why you don’t?”

Next, something a kindergarten teacher told us can be very helpful. “If we’re talking, we’re not listening.” We’re paying with our time and money to gather around and learn what makes the customer tick. Wouldn’t it be silly of us to spend the whole time talking on our phone, or working on the laptop or the BlackBerry, ignoring what that buyer has to say? Luckily we have a chance to be smarter than that.

Finally, if the whole focus group approach just doesn’t seem to be working, consider changing the venue. Get in the room with the customer. If there’s a better incentive to make sure your team is really listening when the customer speaks, we can’t think of a better one than to make them actually be in the same place, face to face, while facilitators help keep the fun and energy level up, and the customers work through solving some well-defined issues. In fact our friend Luke Hohmann wrote a book about doing just that. It’s called Innovation Games®: Creating Breakthrough Products through Collaborative Play. You can check out Luke’s book at At our upcoming workshop in March, Luke will be joining us to help participants learn how to listen to their customers and have fun at the same time. We hope you’ll join us!

We’ve made a few suggestions for improving your customers’ qualitative research experience. In a recent blog, Seth Godin has some great tips for making quantitative research more appealing for customers as well. You can check out his blog here: Five tips for better online surveys .

Happy listening,

Megann & Steve



Make better decisions, get better results, grow your business. We use a deep toolkit of specialized techniques help clarify your objectives, identify decisions that must be made, and eliminate knowledge gaps, resulting in strategy with a firmer foundation and better results.

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